Sunday, July 22, 2007

Another short interruption

There's going to have to be another short break with scattered or no postings for a few days, unavoidably. But things will be back to normal at least by August 1. --Badger

Friday, July 20, 2007

Straight talk

Ibrahim Izzat al-Douri, leader of the part of the Iraqi Baath party, says he is planning to call together Baathists and Iraqi islamist groups to consider forming a united front to "escalate the military resistance" to the occupation, on a common program of defeating not only the occupation itself, but everything that has been derived from it, including the government and the constitution, in order to make a clean start under occupation-free conditions. This was conveyed to Al-Quds al-Arabi by unnamed sources, who added that a rival Baath figure Ahmed al-Yunis, isn't being invited, but that another big Baathist name is expected to attend, namely Fawzi al-Rawi, leader of a wing that is said to be close to the Syrian Baath party. It is hard to know what to make of the internal Baath comings and goings, and similarly it is hard to know what to make of the list of a half-dozen Iraqi islamist groups, none of which are familiar names. Overall, as Marc Lynch noted in his thumbnail tag on this item, it appears al-Douri is responding to the fact that he and the Baath party were left out of the group whose existence was announced yesterday in the Guardian piece. The program is identical: Defeat of the occupation and all that it brought with it, while at the same time being prepared to negotiate the withdrawal process.

Awni Qalamji, a resistance figure who writes regularly in Al-Quds al-Arabi, notes in his op-ed piece today (pdf, bottom of the page) that there has been a recent wave of meetings and conferences and common fronts, although he doesn't specifically mention these latest two (the column may well have been already written when these last two common-front ideas were announced, but it applies just the same). He does mention a recent series of meetings held in various foreign capitals, for instance one Nuri al-Marsumi, organized a series of meetings with "[Iraqi] figures preaching nationalism and leftism, coming from London and other places", and he refers in a similarly dismissive way to a recent series of meetings by the better-known Iyad Allawi, including a meeting in Cairo with the participation of a Kurdish figure opposed to Talabani, and with people from the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian Mukhabarat. This whole meetings fad is based on expectations of an American withdrawal, Qalamji points out. This isn't the first time rumors of an American withdrawal led to a flurry of this type of meetings, and he refers specifically to mid 2005 and a meeting in Beirut (which if I knew something about it I would insert it here). Qalamji's point is that there isn't going to be an American withdrawal, so this whole conference fad is based on a mistake.

It is true, he writes, that Bush is under a lot of pressure, not only from Democrats, but from his own generals, who have often indicated skepticism about whether they are having anything you could call success. That is all quite true, he says,
but it is even more true that what is being proposed by the Democrats, under the heading of a plan to withdraw US troops by the end of 2008, is nothing but a scam to convince American public opinion, which is pressing for the return of their boys to their country safe and sound, and not in the black bags, in order to obtain votes in the coming presidential election....
These are points Qalamji has made before, but he thinks this is the time to re-emphasize them: What the Democrats are out to defeat is the Republicans, not the project for control of Iraq. The expression "withdrawal" is merely a cover for re-assigning troops so that the troops themselves are safer; Iraq will still be occupied. It is difficult for some to face this situation, and there is a temptation to cling to fantasies about an easy victory, an early withdrawal, or at least the idea that what Bush and the Democrats are focused on is finding a way to make an honorable withdrawal.

Consequently, says Qalamji, the times require us to re-emphasize the point that the role of the resistance is to fight the occupation and not to dick around with negotiations based on idle dreams, something that (as the heading to this op-ed piece puts it) risks "distorting the image of the resistance". And not only the image.

The resistance should aim toward the formation of a unified fighting organization, with joint leadership, and similarly on the political level the establishment of good relations with all of the bona fide nationalist organizations and movements, so as to arrive at a common political program that has the genuine support of the broadest possible popular base. This can't be done from outside the country, neither on the military side nor on the political side. Secondly, negotiations, if they are to come about, are themselves part of the struggle between the occupation and the resistance, and they can only begin when the occupation is no longer capable of defending itself and has to sue for an honorable exit, which would be on the terms of the resistance, not on their own terms. This implies things like negotiating damages at the same time, negotiating from a position of full sovereignty, and so on. And it implies the continuation of military operations right up until final agreement.
The thing everyone should keep in mind at this point is that when the Americans talk about an honorable withdrawal, their idea is to convince the resistance to lay down their arms, and by joining the political process and joining in the governing authority, actually help ratify the occupation [by the Americans] who, when they first came, came to stay, and not to leave voluntarily. If we put these discussions [about negotiating and joining the political process] to one side, and take up instead the language of reality, then what we hear from the American politicians with respect to Iraq is the exact opposite of what is actually happening, because the American forces, on the one hand, while continuing to talk about withdrawal, are in fact launching ever more violent attacks against Iraqi cities, using the worst weapons of killing and destruction, including banned weapons, while on the other hand you have Bush explaining that among the American options there is not the option called "failure", and that he is determined to break the back of the Iraqi resistance.
Qalamji, as I mentioned, doesn't talk about the latest two common-front-resistance announcements, that of the seven groups mentioned in the Guardian yesterday, or that of al-Douri and others mentioned in Al-Quds al-Arabi today, but I think his point would apply, and it is a cautionary one: Beware Americans talking about an honorable withdrawal.

Why the parliamentary impasse was ended

The Iraqi Accord Front (or Tawaffuq) ended its boycott of parliament yesterday, a couple of days after Sadrist current ended its boycott, and the Western press is setting new records for incoherence in narrating these events, the latest insight being that the IAF returned because of a guarantee that embattled speaker Mashhadani, one of their members, would be able to receive 80% of his salary on retirement, rather than being fired with no salary, making this surely one of the most amazing displays of solidarity in human history.

Al-Hayat has a better explanation. (For background, please recall that earlier accounts spoke of a "3 plus 1" arrangement that would give the Presidency Council, consisting of president Talabani and his two vice-presidents,who include IAF member Tareq al-Hashemi, more say in government decision-making, side by side with Prime Minister Maliki). Today Al-Hayat says:
Considering the fact that the return of the Tawaffuq is simultaneous with confirmation of an augmenting of the powers of the Presidency Council in expected constitutional amendments, observers are inclined to see a political deal, formed by the government, under American pressure, with the blocs that had been boycotting Parliament, to guarantee the passage of laws, among them the Oil Law and the law on De-Baathification, in order to bolster the success of Baghdad in meeting a greater number of the 18 conditions laid down by the US congress...[in the coming September report]
In other words, the trade was this: Maliki gets support for smooth passage of the laws he needs in order for Bush to okay his continuation in power; and the IAF gets constitutional amendments long demanded by the Sunnis, (which, broadly speaking, could include things like federalism procedures, but this Al-Hayat article doesn't get into that level of detail).

It is true that the specific comments elicited by the Al-Hayat reporter, from IAF and government spokesmen alike, steer clear of explaining details of what was agreed. However, what the comments do underline is that the participants say they consider it of historic importance. IAF leader Adnan Dulaimi said this is a first step in solving the political crisis and stopping the bloodshed in Iraq. A government spokesman said the return of the Sadrists and the IAF will add to the credibility of the new set of names to be announced next week, of cabinet ministers to fill the seven empty posts (six caused by the resignation of the Sadrist ministers and one by the resignation of an Iraqi List minister) with persons chosen for their expertise and not for their party-affiliation.

But the reporter returns to his main point, about the overall nature of the deal. He says:
The withdrawal of the Tawaffuq and the Dialogue Council led by Saleh al-Mutlak, the latter's return not decided yet, in addition to the withdrawal of the Shiite bloc led by Moqtada al-Sadr, had stymied passage of laws considered by the administration of President George Bush as essential for measuring progress of the Iraqi government in meeting its commitments. The cabinet of Prime Minister Maliki had been in a hurry to pass a law on distribution of oil revenues that had aroused widespread debate, pervaded by accusations that the Iraqi government was submissive to American wishes in trying to pass it quickly, and opponents of the war saw this as pushing in the direction of increased violence and putting the country on the verge of dismemberment, along with a package of other laws that the White House said were key to political settlement in Iraq, including amendments to the De-Baathification procedures, constitutional amendments, and measures toward national reconciliation.
In other words, Maliki had a legislative program that had been subject to accusations of subservience to America, against a background of Sunni discontent with basic issues including constitutional amendments. Under the terms of the new deal, the Sunni parties, in exchange for promises respecting the Sunni demands respecting the constitution, De-Baathification and so on, commit to facilitating passage of those and other laws that the Bush administration needs in order to "show progress" and that Maliki needs in order to remain in office. And importantly, without voicing those accusations about subservience to America.

This is an account that leaves a lot up in the air, but it is worth at least trying to grasp the main point, which is that this parliamentary impasse ended with an agreement by the Green Zone parties that includes, as one of its parts, agreement to facilitate passage of those laws that Bush, the US Congress, and Maliki all need in order to "show progress" and keep the show on the road. This is worth remembering when September comes.

The point is important for two reasons: First, just because it shows that there is a political process, of sorts, if you can call it that, at work, and the Western accounts that attribute all this activity to an incoherent set of demands based fundamentally on personal greed, isn't the whole story. But secondly, because once you recognize that there is a process of this sort going on, it is easy to also understand its complete artificiality. What brought this "political" agreement about was the the demonstration by the Americans of their ability to moblize some Sunni armed groups, on a local basis at least, and while the Western accounts all report that as a feature of the war against AlQaeda, the Sunni-Shia significance obviously wasn't lost on the Green Zone politicians.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

How US-resistance talks are seen in the Green Zone

There is understandably a lot of attention being devoted to talks and/or cooperation in Iraq between the US and local armed groups associated with tribes and/or resistance groups. In the West this is uniformly taken up as a feature of the fight against AlQaeda, and in a more remote way as possibly having relevance to the question of US "withdrawal", real or apparent.

But in the Green Zone, these discussions are seen first and foremost in a completely different context, namely as something potentially destabilizing for the Maliki administration. To illustrate the point, let's look at remarks by a US Embassy official to the newspaper Al-Sabah, a paper allied with the Iraqi government and with the occupation.
An American diplomat denied there is any substitute Plan B in the strategy of the United States in Iraq against the Maliki government, and he insisted that communications with armed groups have been carried out with the knowledge of the Iraqi government, and [he said] Washington is currently focused on supporting and strengthening the political process, for the realization of the desired aims.
The diplomat in question is political attache at the American embassy, David Galbraith, and in the course of this interview-summary the denial of any American scheme or conspiracy against the Maliki government, is repeated over and over, and always in connection with the "talks with the resistance" point. For instance later on the journalist quotes Galbraith
denying any discussion of an American role in any "conspiracy" against the Iraqi government. And as far as the communications with armed groups in Iraq are concerned, Galbraith said these communications were carried out with the knowledge of the Iraqi government, and with its support. However he added: "Some of our positive talks in Anbar and Diyala led to further discussions with groups that are called 'resistance' or 'rebel', which began to cooperate with the Iraqi and American forces in fighting AlQaeda, and this is an example of talks between us and armed persons who work with the resistance". Galbraith pointed to the difference between AlQaeda which is a world-wide terror movement on the one hand, and certain groups that take up arms against us and against the Iraqi forces, and we will fight them too if they continue, and he conditioned the continuation of these talks on these groups' keeping up their commitment to fighting AlQaeda.
If the point about "no plan B" seems somewhat remote, please recall the frightening CBS report of July 7 that said the Maliki government was in dire straits on account of a plan by something called the "Iraq Project" to topple him. What happened after that is that the Great Eraser of Media Talking Points wiped that issue completely off the blackboard for Western readers, turning our attention instead to this theme of US v AlQaeda. What is important to remember is that US support for Sunni armed groups is going to be seen in Iraq, and rightly so, in the Sunni-Shia context. And it is important to notice the degree to which anglosphere commentary aggressively eliminates that context from the discussion. Partly, no doubt, because it recalls in the broad sweep of things the American penchant for playing one sect off against the other.

America pulling the plug on its freelancers? Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq

This, as they say, is an opinion piece:

What happened in northern Lebanon, according to the simplest interpretation, is that the Hariri/Saudi group and its allies in the Bush administration, which had previously supported a salafi group called Fatah al-Islam, decided to pull the plug, with Hariri abruptly ending monthly payments to group-members. This was followed by expressions of displeasure including a bank-robbery, and then a couple of months of reports about the heroism of the Lebanese Army in reducing the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp to rubble. The result is a new strategic importance for the Lebanese Army, previously considered an institution with a nationalist core, now part of the Hariri- and US-led alliance. This simplifies and escalates the "moderate versus extremist" road-map for the Americans and their allies. Having groups like Fatah al-Islam put pressure on Hizbullah was one stratgegy, but using the Lebanese Army for that is a much simpler and more powerful one for the long haul.

In Gaza, where Fatah leaders fled rather than defend the Dahlan organization, we are asked to believe in a David versus Goliath miracle-victory for Hamas against the US-armed Dahlan group, when a much more plausible explanation would be that the US decided to pull the plug on that corrupt former cats-paw as well. The result here is also a new strategic configuration, isolating Hamas in Gaza, and thus escalating and simplifying the pressure on the "extremists". Having groups like the Dahlan gangs put pressure on Hamas was one strategy, but isolating Hamas in Gaza and using an overt Fatah-Israel coalition to do that seems to be much simpler and more powerful in the long haul.

In both cases, the facts we know are more consistent with the hypothesis of this kind of a strategy-development in Washington than they are with the kind of freakish and unexplainable sequence of events that have been reported in this weirdly unquestioning way by the media.

In Baghdad, where the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was declared last October by one Omar al-Baghdadi (Conflicts Forum reported that Baghdadi was a former Sadamist military person with a history of working with Saudi intelligence) I don't believe there was ever any overt indication of US support for this project. But the gist of Baathist accusations was that the ISI declaration was a move in de facto support of the US plan for partition of Iraq, given that the ISI headquarters were in Anbar province, and its claimed territory limited to central Iraq. I do not think the hypothesis of ISI as a US cats-paw can be ruled out. And the funny thing is that yesterday, the US announced that someone captured two weeks ago has said that Baghdadi was a sham creation of the foreign AlQaeda leadership, aimed at giving the salafis in Iraq a local coloration. To me, this has the appearance of the US pulling the plug on another of its dubious creations.

In Lebanon, the aim was to step up to using the Lebanese Army in place of US-supported freelance groups to act for the US and its allies; in Palestine, the aim was to step up to an all-out attack on Hamas, by ditching the US-supported Dahlan freelancers and going instead with Fatah itself in cooperation with the Israeli forces. But in Iraq?

It should be noted that the "unmasking" of al-Baghdadi yesterday follows weeks and months of reports, in some cases only hints, of US-forces local alliances with not only Sunni tribal fighters, but also break-away elements from the major Sunni national resistance groups, a process that has given rise to a whole series of reorganization-announcements from the resistance groups. Is it possible that US-alliances with Sunni tribal and resistance elements has made enough progress that it can now be "institutionalized" in the same way that the the anti-Hizbullah strategy in Lebanon, and the anti-Hamas strategy in Gaza have been "institutionalized"?

The US invaded Iraq and then used Shiite groups to harass the Sunnis (and in particular the Baathists); now it is using Sunni groups to harass the Shiites (and in particular the Sadrists) in order to complete the dismemberment of Iraq. The role of the takfiiris and the salafis in this process has been to keep the flames of sectarian strife burning. Possibly, having done their job, they aren't needed any more.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Full circle

Iraqi news-site reports:
Our correspondent in Baghdad learned from an official in the Interior Ministry that that ministry has obtained information on the existence of an American plan to send recruits from Sunni tribes to certain Baghdad areas. Our correspondent said there are four brigades being trained and equipped in preparation for assignment to Baghdad. He added that these bridages will be under the direct supervision and leadership of the American army, and they will be participating in military operations together with the American forces. And there is information to the effect the initial assignments will be to [the district of] Palestine Street, Waziriya, and two other districts not yet known.
Iraqslogger correctly notes that this would represent an escalation in tensions between the Iraqi government and the Americans, on the question of who controls military/security operations.

The implicit point is that this would represent US alliance with Sunni forces in areas where the main issues tend to be Sunni versus Shiia (and not Sunni versus AlQaeda). And in that way the coming full circle of what Iraqi nationalists have always said is essence of the American strategy: First, alliance with Shiite militias to persecute Sunnis (and Baathists in particular) in the post 2003 period; and now switching to alliance with Sunni fighters to persecute Shiites (and Sadrists in particular) to finish the job of reducing Iraq to a collection of walled-off cantons.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

No confidence

Today (Tuesday July 17) the Iraqi parliament met, and it was announced that the Sadrist current had ended its boycott, citing satisfaction about arrangements for rebuilding and protecting the Samara shrines, but with no mention of the other big unresolved issue: Replacements for the six Sadrist cabinet ministers who resigned en masse two months ago citing lack of a US-withdrawal schedule, and later citing the need for ministry-allocations based on expertise instead of sect-affiliation.

The Sunni blocs that have also been boycotting the legislature (the Iraqi Accord Front and the Dialogue Front) continued their boycott, because they said talks on the status of (former) Paliamentary speaker Mashhadani, and on stopping criminal proceedings against a Sunni cabinet minister and releasing Sunni security people who have been arrested, are still going on.

Most reports said nothing about what was actually discussed at the Tuesday session, but said there was a resolution to ask cabinet to send 6000 Peshmarga military people to take up security tasks in Kirkuk, in response to the recent bombings there.

There wasn't any mention of a no-confidence motion. Remember that? About ten days ago, on July 7, CBS News said it had learned that a group called Project Iraq was planning such a no-confidence motion, claiming they had the necessary votes. The news report said the motion would be tabled by "the largest bloc of Sunni politicians" (that would be the IAF) "who are part of a broad political alliance called the Iraq Project," but the report failed to name any other members of this "broad political alliance", noting only: "What they want is a new government run by ministers who are appointed for their expertise, not their party loyalty."

Pesonally I have never seen a reference to anything called the Iraq Project in any Arab-language media, Iraqi or otherwise. But we know that it was something that existed at least in the minds of US vice-president Cheney and Iraqi vice-president Hashemi, because CBS News said:
The Iraq Project is known to the highest levels of the U.S. government. CBS News has learned it was discussed in detail on Vice President Dick Cheney's most recent visit to Baghdad, when he met with the Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.
As a result of the pressure from this "Iraq Project", CBS News said, "the political situation [of Prime Minister Maliki] is desperate".

Subsequently there were cryptic comments by Hashemi in the media about how he would vote for a no-confidence motion if someone else tabled it, but the idea was never developed as an actual count-the-votes possibility. What there was plenty of, however, was panic and alarm, particularly respecting the possibility of a split between Maliki and the Sadrists, with all that could imply for the security/military situation in the country. This was connected with the Washington report about benchmarks, via the idea of more US pressure on Maliki to put down the "militias", meaning the Mahdi Army. Some of that I summarized in an earlier post quoting Sadrists and Maliki people in a confrontational mode.

What happened, between the CBS report on July 7 that the political situation of Maliki was desperate, and today's absolutely uneventful Parliamentary session? Here's my scenario:

With the Washington report about Maliki not meeting benchmarks, there would have been some pressure on Maliki, but only theoretically. What would make pressure (for a tougher line with the Sadrists) real and vivid for him would be an atmosphere of anxiety about his government being toppled. Since there isn't any coalition with anything like the votes to do that, the group involving Cheney and his Baghdad confidantes had to make do with a name only: "the Iraq Project". Either there was never any substance to the idea of IAF alliance with any other significant voting bloc except the small group headed by Allawi, or if there was, it was put to rest by the reports of Allawi's meeting with regional Mukhabarat agencies, something that effectively made this look like a straight Sunni rebellion against a Shiite government. Whichever, it seems clear to me that the no-confidence scare was something that came out of the Cheney White House to press Maliki to get tougher on Sadr. Whether this had any of the desired effect or not is another question entirely; my point is simply that this was a case of the US media (and the echo-chamber blogosphere: see this enthusiastic piece by Spencer Ackerman) playing a bit part in US tactics and strategy, while purportedly reporting actual news.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A quiet weekend

Iraqi politicians and movement people appear to have taken a step back on the weekend.

(1) Sadrists meeting in Najaf made remarks indicating there is probably an agreement on an acceptable list of replacement-ministers for the six Sadr appointees who resigned en masse over two months ago, originally in protest against the lack of a demand by Maliki for a timetable for US withdrawal, and later re-framed as an opportunity for Maliki to appoint independent qualified people, (as opposed to the traditional sect-based spoils system). The Sadrists' statements on the weekend, summarized by Al-Hayat, indicated they had agreed on the new list of ministers, implying these will be of the "technocrat" persuasion, and not necessarily members of the sect. The list was to have been presented to Parliament today, but as luck would have it, there wasn't any electricity, so the session had to be postponed to tomorrow. And the list doesn't hasn't been disclosed elsewhere.

(2) Hakim of SIIC, in Tehran for medical treatment, made statements denying that the intent behind the so-called "moderate" coalition had anything to do with changing the Maliki administration. Azzaman said there had been rumors that part of their scheme was to replace Maliki with Adel Adbul Mahdi (a US favorite and currently one of the two vice-presidents of the republic), and Hakim was intent on putting that idea to rest. Hakim also said the governing coalition is intent on trying to hang onto participation by "our Sunni brothers". He apparently didn't mention the Sadrists specifically, but the whole idea was that the "moderate" coalition wasn't intended to exclude any group "whether moderate or extreme".

(3) As for the recent Maliki statement attacking the Sadrists for harboring Baathists and Sadaamists and so on, a Maliki spokesman said this wasn't intended as an attack on that honorable and patriotic group, but rather was an expression of regret over possible damage to their reputation by being associated with discredited elements. Some Sadrists took that as an apology.

The Sadrists also expressed satisfaction over the fact that the government has signed a contract for the rebuilding of the Samara shrine, with a specific timetable for completion, and that was cited as another reason for their probable return to participation in Parliament.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Food for thought

Al-Masriyoun, an Egyptian opposition newspaper, reports on two cases of mass arrests carried out over the past several months by Egyptian authorities, under a media blackout, on terror charges (the first of which was laid only yesterday), for which there doesn't appear to be any actual evidence apart from some prison confessions obtained under pressure.
Al-Masriyoun learned from reliable sources that National Security investigators in Alexandria have held over 50 salafis in custody for over a month, under a media blackout, and without bringing any charges against them. The sources said most of those arrested are residents of popular [meaning poor] districts in east Alexandria. They could be charged with belonging to a "terror" organization with ties to AlQaeda, in spite of the lack of any convincing evidence in support of such a charge.
The journalist says this news comes a day after the announcement of the arrest of a different group of 35 people from the provinces of Bani Suwayf and Al-Qalyubyah, arrests that have been going on since April, on allegations of belonging to AlQaeda, plotting to overthrow the government, and planning terrorist bombings. The journalist says his sources say in this case too the authorities are "having difficulty coming up with any actual material evidence, apart from confessions that have been obtained under pressure." The authorities disavowed to family members any connection with the arrests, and lawyers were not told where these people were being held. National security authorities "exploited" the publication three weeks ago of a call by Mohammed Khalil al-Hakayama (alleged AlQaeda regional chief in Egypt) for attacks on Israeli and American assets in Egypt, using it as the occasion to announce the Bani Sawyf/Qalyubyah group, and to prepare for announcing the Alexandria arrests.

That's a pretty straightforward account: They arrested two different batches of salafis over the last several months, held them incommunicado and obtained some confessions under duress, in the absense of other evidence, then waited for an appropriate PR moment to announce any actual charges.

But wait. There is another account of some of these same events, this one in Al-Hayat. There the story goes like this:
The Egyptian chief prosecutors office announced the transfer to prison ...of 40 fundamentalists from Bani Suwayf and Al-Qalyulyah belonging to a radical Islamist group connected with AlQaeda, held since March, aned they accuse them of planning to strike American targets and attack tourists.
The journalist cites AFP as having discovered that the police have been patrolling the Cairo subway with dogs and bomb-detecting equipment, for the last few days. He goes on:
It was learned that these 40 accused persons all come from [the above-mentioned two provinces], and that their leader, Khalid Mustafi, was able to escape to the Gaza Strip with the help of Palestinian fundamentalists. Authorities discovered the existence of this group after the explosion of a primitive bomb at the house of one of them. And the investigations showed that some of the accused persons had telephone conversations with AlQaeda members in Yemen, Pakistan and Iraq...
after they had been initially recruited over the internet.

What the authorities told this Al-Hayat reporter could be a pretty good indication where they are headed with this.
Al-Hayat has learned [he writes] that among the accused persons there is a Palestinian, Mohammed Sayyed Ibrahim by name, who lived in Bani Suwayf, and worked with computers, and he had been reading at his home news summaries on a regular periodic basis, posted on an AlQaeda site on the internet.
Another thing the reporter says he learned is that group-leaders transported members for training to Iraq, Afghanistan--and Palestine. He says the authorities said the group-members have been accused of "belonging to a secret illegal organization" advocating terror, whose purposes include interfering with the exercise of state authority.

The Al-Hayat reporter doesn't say anything about the Alexandria group, no doubt because the authorities haven't decided to announce that one yet.

At least the Egyptian procedures are somewhat better than those of the Bush Justice Department, because following the secret detentions and the confessions, there is apparently going to be an actual court proceeding. And there is another thing to consider. In the comparable American case, with police patrolling the subways and all the rest of it, would you have been able to read both versions--the government and the opposition--in the newspapers? Or would you not have been limited to the stenographic version of what the authorities leaked to the New York Times?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Talk of Arab Mukhabarat involvement hurts Iraqi opposition plans

A couple of passages in weekend Iraqi papers point to what you might call a complicating factor in the emerging confrontation between an opposition coalition (involving Allawi), and the new, smaller but supposedly more solid, governing coalition.

First the more or less clear elements of the story so far: The new so-called "moderate alliance" is essentially the same as the coalition that supported Maliki in the first place only smaller, including ((1) the two big Kurdish parties, (2) the Shiite coalition United Iraqi Alliance, but importantly without the Sadrists, and instead with the possibility of additional membership by the Islamic Party of Tareq al-Hashemi, and finally (3) non-participation by any of the other Sunni Arab parties. In other words, the new "moderate alliance" excludes the parties associated with the major anti-occupation forces, namely the Sadrists (Mahdi Army) and the Arab Sunni parties. From this point of view, not surprisingly, the development appears to be in the opposite direction from that supposedly promoted by the Americans, namely government reconciliation with the "reconciliable" elements of the resistance, because it appears the only symbol of "reconciliation" would be the questionable figure of Tareq al-Hashemi.

An op-ed writer in the Iraqi paper Al-Sabah al-Jadida puts it this way: The new "moderate" grouping has a distinctly "defensive" feel to it, the main idea being to be able to beat off any parliamentary challenge to the status quo, more than to actually effect major changes. (The minor changes they are proposing would include the so-called "three-plus-one" proposal for giving Talabani and Hashemi more say in government decision-making, by forcing Maliki (the "one") to meet periodically with the Talabani and his two vice-presidents Hashemi and Mahdi (the "three"). For some reason he doesn't mention what the exclusion of the Sadrist current from the governing coalition means in terms of US military strategy. See the prior post here).

This op-ed writer adds: It was a series of ill-considered moves by Allawi that woke up the Shiites and the Kurds to a sense of imminent danger, and made them determined to close ranks in the way that they have done, closing off to Allawi the possibility of allying with any elements of either the Kurdish of the SIIC/Dawa blocs. He says Allawi's activities had the effect of alerting them
to the serious possibility of a wave of involvements by regional Mukhabarat agencies in the affairs of [Iraqi] national [or nationalist] alliances. It was this wake-up that was embodied in the speed and urgency with which the four (two Shiite and two Kurdish) concluded their discussions, and the speed with which they dissociated themselves from any groups or persons associated with [Allawi's] "Iraqi List".
And the weekend Azzaman, in its Iraqi edition, includes something about this alleged involvement by the regional Mukhabarat agencies (but without explicitly naming Allawi in connection with this). First, SIIC head Hakim tells the Azzaman reporter about the fine support the Maliki government enjoys domestically, then there is this:
And [Hakim] said in an interview with an Iranian newspaper in Tehran (doesn't say what paper) that there are big challenges and opposition movements facing the Iraqi government on many levels, adding: "We have found on the international level there has been a joining-together of Mukhabarat agencies of countries in the region, that have laid down a plan to topple the Malaki government, and they have been trying to form a common front with certain Iraqis to this end..."
And the journalist says others close to SIIC said
It has been able to observe from up close the movements of some of the parliamentary bloc leaders going from one Arab to the other and their efforts to obtain moral and financial support for a project of constitutional coup against the Maliki government.
Notice the difference in treatment of this theme. The Sabah al-Jadida writer says Allawi's talks with the regional agencies in fact had the effect of waking up the governing coalition to the danger involved in this, enabling them to close off any chance he might have had of picking off any of the major parties; by contrast, the more partisan Azzaman treats this strictly as a Supreme Council allegation against the proponents of a "coup".

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Al-Hayat: American "benchmark" pressure is leading to a new alignment of characters to fight the Sadrists (just what the Hadley memo suggested)

Al-Hayat describes the effect the the congressionally mandated report on the Iraqi "benchmarks" is having on the Iraqi political scene, his main points being: (1) The pressure to meet benchmarks is causing an escalation in the strategy of bombing-attacks/mass arrests in urban areas; (2) it appears the leader of the Islamic Party (of Muslim Brotherhood origin), Tareq al-Hashemi, is being offered a role in government decision-making, to keep him on board; (3) the so-called "three plus one" scheme will apparently mean some additional support for Maliki in the expected confrontation with the Mahdi Army, and Sadr spokespeople are talking about a "coming war" between the Mahdi Army and militias to be set up by the Iraqi and occupation forces and certain tribal leaders. (4) An IAF parliamentarian said it appears the only way any candidate to replace Maliki could succeed in getting the needed 183 votes would be if Dawa and SIIC were to agree join with other groups in supporting Adel abdul Mahdi.

In Baghdad, the reporter says, the political people are awaiting the American report with apprehension. Abdulkarim al-Bakhati, an adviser to the Prime Minister, told Al-Hayat: "The political competitive struggles are the main motivating factor behind the bombing of certain towns in Baghdad and in the Iraqi South", and he talked about "the existence of an American military strategy that operates on the principle of random bombing of towns, and simultaneously sending in members of the dirty squads to carry out massive arrests in those towns".

Sami al-Askari, a politician close to Maliki, criticized the American time-limits for Baghdad, insisting the [Iraqi] government is not interested in internal American political struggles.

But Hamid al-Maala one of the leaders of SIIC (formerly SCIRI) said "Bush supports the broad move to governmental change represented by the 3+1 project". The reporter explains: The three plus one is shorthand for a change that will involve the President of the Republic and his two vice presidents (collectively called the Presidency Council) in making government decisions, along with the Prime Minister. And that, he explains, will give Tareq al-Hashemi, who is one of the vice-presidents, the chance to participate in decision-making. And he quotes Hashemi: "Our demand, in brief, is just for the Presidency Council to exercise its constitutional rights, and we hope that this is something that will be resolved in the periodic meetings between the Presidency Council and the Prime Minister".

The journalist interjects with a reality check: "However", he writes, "from another point of view [a polite expression] it appears this isn't going to be enough to bring about the required changes [presumably, the changes that the Bush administration is demanding in terms of benchmarks and so on], but what it will do is to give [Maliki] additional support in his expected confrontation with the Mahdi Army, whose leaders have already opened fire on the government and declared their intention to topple it". He quotes Salah al-Abidi, a Sadr spokesman, who charges that Maliki government has planning for a long time, along with the occupation forces and "other Shiite parties", a program for liquidating the Mahdi Army. And then he quotes a "top Sadr assistant" whom he doesn't name.
[This person said] "Shiite parties", and he doesn't name them, "are intent on allying with tribes and with the American forces, and on forming [with them] militias to strike at the Mahdi Army". And he said there is a near-term war looming on the horizon.

The journalist then notes that Maliki's office issued a statement confirming he has been meeting with tribal leaders in the Iraqi South, including rhetoric along the lines of Who is selling Iraq, it is not us.

In this tense environment, says the journalist, it doesn't seem that the "proposals for change" (apparently referring to the "three plus one" scheme and perhaps also the idea of a new Prime Minister) stand much of a chance of bringing about the required changes. He concludes by quoting Wa'il Abdullatif, a member of parliament from the Iraqi Accord Front, who said there are three people in the running to succeed Maliki, namely vice-president of the republic Adel abdul Mahdi, the westernized IMF-type Shiite who was the US favorite in the runoff to succeed Jaafari, beaten out by Maliki, who enjoyed at that time Sadrist support; former president Iyad Allawi; and Ibrahim Jaafari himself. "But this requires 183 votes", Abdullatif explained, "which makes it pretty much impossible for any of them, unless there is an agreement between the Dawa and Supreme Council parties to support adbulMahdi".

Escalation in Palestine with US support

Since Israel holds between 39 and 41 Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Assembly in its jails, Fatah has, or had, what you could call a de facto majority in the Legislative Assembly, resulting from this large number of de facto abstentions, if you will. Based on the facts on the ground, if you will. Abbas called a meeting of the Assembly yesterday because he needed its approval for the legal continuation of his "emergency government", but as expected the non-kidnapped Hamas members boycotted the meeting leaving it without a quorum to vote on anything. So it couldn't legally extend the term of the "emergency government". But this was "clearly what Mr Abbas wanted", says the New York Times, explaining that "Mr Abbas may be able to declare the government a 'caretaker' until new elections can be held..." pursuant to Article 43 of the Basic Law, which, the NYT explains, "gives him the right to issue decrees in exceptional cases." Not entirely clear? Something escaping you?

Here's the explanation in Al-Akhbar, with the missing piece added:
Hamas was able to block the holding of a session of the Leglsiative Assembly called by Abbas to elect [new parliamentary leadership] and remove Hamas from control of Parliament, taking advantage of the fact that 41 of the Hamas members of the Assembly are in Israeli jails. It appears that Abbas is going to use the blocking of this session to extend the life of the emergency government he has formed, and give it legal powers, on the basis that Hamas disrupted this legal proceeding, a charge that is repeated by all the Fatah spokesmen, on the view that their competitor [Hamas] is intent on establishing a "Somalian emirate" in the Gaza Strip to be a pawn in the hands of regional parties.
Those were the words of the official Fatah spokesman, Ahmad abdul Rahman. Hamas continues to call for dialogue, and Haniyya said what Abbas proposes to do will amount to dissolution of the whole Palestinian political structure. David Welsh, currently the State Department's man in the region, said the US government approves of everything Abbas has done since Hamas took control of Gaza. And the Al-Akhbar reporter adds Condoleeza Rice will be visiting in person on July 18.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Giant badgers terrorize Iraqi port city

Basra historian Reidar Visser has kindly called my attention to this.

AFP reports
BASRA, Iraq (AFP) - The Iraqi port city of Basra, already prey to a nasty turf war between rival militia factions, has now been gripped by a new fear -- a giant badger stalking the streets by night.
The money quote is here:
"If you cornered it and poked it with a stick, then the smart money would be on the badger," warned Gell...

Cranking up the scare level, at home and abroad

When Mahmoud Abbas (in statements made during his visit to Italy) accused Hamas of having introduced AlQaeda into Gaza and protecting them there, he was saying something not only completely illogical (given the fundamental enmity between AlQaeda and Hamas), and without evidence. Because in addition to those points, if there is AlQaeda in Gaza, this is surely something traceable to the era of the corrupt security regime that Hamas has just replaced. Not only that (says Al-Quds al-Arabi in its lead editorial today), the purpose of this kind of baseless accusation is to support the planned pressure for an international force to occupy Gaza, by raising the scare level. And the editorialist scolds Abbas thus: It is understandable that you have personal animosity as a result of what has happened, but please try to keep separate and distinguished in your mind what is in your personal interest and what is in the national interest. When you use scare tactics aimed at laying the groundwork for turning Gaza into an international protectorate you are not hurting only your personal enemies, but the Palestinian cause as a whole.

In the same vein, there was a posting at Daily Kos on Monday yesterday titled: "Hamas threatens to fire on 6000 stranded Palestinians", a ludicrous charge made up out of whole cloth, and yet there it is backed up with the Daily Kos brand. It's all in the interests of raising the Hamas scare level. You'd think they'd be able to find a way of helping press for the opening of the Rafah crossing, instead of acting as host for this kind of thing, being a collective of progressives and all.

"Strategic progress"

"The White House is trying to break through its isolation and stanch the flow of Republican defections by insisting on strategic success in Iraq currently, in order to lay the groundwork for 'reducing the number of forces and limiting their role' in the coming year, as Congress takes up a new bill [including a provision] for withdrawal within the coming four months". That's how Al-Hayat summarizes the state of play in Washington this morning, referring to yesterday's WaPo article about a briefing for Republicans by Stephen Hadley and the war-czar Lute.

With that as background, the Al-Hayat reporter relates the peculiar story of Amariya district (west Bagdad):
On another topic, the military leader of the Islamic Army [of Iraq, IAI; the person is referred to only by a nom de guerre] denied repeated reports that his group had received American support in fighting AlQaeda in Amariya, and a leader of the Islamic Party [Tareq al-Hashemi's party] said a split has occurred within the armed faction. The leader of the IAI told Al-Hayat: "What has been spread around respecting receipt by our fighters of military or logistical support from the Americans is completely devoid of truth." And he added: "The military parade by some of our fighters in Amariya was for the purpose of showing the scope of our presence in that town, which has been honorable in its resistance to the occupation".
The reporter then reminds readers that in the statement of Omar al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State of Iraq (AlQaeda) a few days ago, the ISI leader said his group was in control of Amariya, and the reporter says this appeared to be a challenge to the IAI which had been fighting AlQaeda in that area for the past few weeks. And then there is this clause which isn't further explained: "[IAI had been fighting AlQaeda for the past weeks] before it [IAI] signed an agreement for a cease-fire with the Islamic State of Iraq." Next we read this:
But Omar al-Wajiha, leader of the Islamic Party, which is headed by the vice-president of the republic Tareq al-Hashemi, denied that the IAI was in control of Amariya after expelling AlQaeda fighters from there, and [al-Wajiha] added that the leadership of the IAI has denied any relationship with what was done in Amariya by this faction, indicating [al-Wajiha told the reporter] the existence of splits within this organization. Wajiha explained that the events in question represent the local people standing up to the unjustified actions of AlQaeda in the area, killing and expelling families [even though] all of them are Sunni.
Wajiha explained to the reporter that the alliance of "some of the resistance factions" with the American forces as a tactical move in their struggle on the ground with AlQaeda. The Americans have issued an announcement about the opening of a "General combat center" in the region "help the Sunni residents free their neighborhood of the rebels".

The picture seems to be this: US forces are helping factions or sub-groups of the IAI in local struggles with AlQaeda, while naturally the IAI leadership (with a leader of Hashemi's Islamic Party also speaking up for them) deny that the group as such is enjoying any military or logistical support from the Americans. This would fit thematically with the current Bush-administration priority of coming up with some kind of evidence of strategic progress (to kick the withdrawal-issue can down the road for another year). There have been widely-reported cases of US alliance with certain tribal groups against AlQaeda; this indicates that there is probably a similar process going on with whatever subgroups of the resistance they can entice in this way.

But what I don't understand is the reference above to the signing of a cease-fire agreement between the IAI and the Islamic State of Iraq. Something is escaping me there.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Mussa getting snippy with Iran

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa talked to Bashar al-Assad and other Syrian leaders on the second leg of his latest tour in search of a resolution of the political crisis in Lebanon, and most reports contain the usual non-committal niceities. But in exchanges with a couple of different Arab-paper reporters, Mussa indicated a particular frustration with Iran and presumably its allies, without naming names.

The reporter for Al-Hayat says:
While Damascus told Mussa...that it supports his efforts ... Mussa alluded to the existence of parties that are against the involvement of the Arab League in resolving the Lebanon problem [and they are] fishing in troubled waters. Mussa stressed that he is not a mailman, but "a man who is stubborn and convinced of the need for an Arab solution to Arab problems."
In a similar vein, the reporter for Azzaman writes that he elicited the following remark from Mussa when he asked him about political reconciliation in Iraq. Mussa reviewed what the Arab League has tried to do, then added:
...but unfortunately there are players who perhaps do not want Arabs or the Arab world or the Arab League to play a in influential role in the solution of any problem...
For the overall diplomatic picture in the region, this indication of Iran-Mussa estrangement is probably not a good sign.

Al-Hayat roundup

In connection with the widely-reported threat by the ISI leader Omar al-Baghdadi to wage jihad against Iran, Al-Hayat juxtaposes this:
Iran joined the race that the American forces and the Iraqi government are already involved in, to win the love of the Sunni tribes [of Iraq], by inviting some of their leaders who are well-connected to armed groups, to visit Tehran and meet with Iranian authorities, in order to "put an end to mutual suspicions". Meanwhile, the "emir" of the "Islamic State of Iraq" issued warnings about a strike against Iranian assets and Sunni businessmen in the Gulf who do business with Tehran if it does not stop its support for the "rejectionists" (Shiites) in Iraq. ...Al-Hayat has obtained reliable information confirming that the Iranian government issued invitations to influential Sunni tribal leaders who are close to armed groups to visit Tehran "to meet with senior political and religious figures there," and they [subject missing here] said this is part of the Iranian aim of "dissipating suspicions" about its role in Iraq, and the invitees are going to convey their concerns about Iranian aims, and urge Iran to play a participatory role in guaranteeing the unity of the country.
Al-Hayat includes considerable detail from the ISI tape that was disseminated on the internet, but says nothing further by way of elaboration or support for this report about an Iranian invitation to the tribal leaders.

With respect to al-Baghdadi, lest anyone has forgotten their skepticism, I would like to refer back to the self-explanatory post "ISI chief reportedly had Saudi-intelligence connections". Not to mention, for overall orientation, the indications of a black-ops background to Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, and the well-documented alliance between the USA and Dahlan in Palestine. (War in Context today notes that the recent interview with a Hamas official suggests it was US-ally Dahlan who impeded the earlier release of the BBC journalist Johnston).

The Al-Hayat reporter moves on to other issues. Following a roundup of the latest Maliki-Sadr confrontation news, he turns to the Iraq-Saudi situation.
On another issue, Saudi security officials said they are going to put an Iraqi security-diplomatic delegation, meeting them in Jedda today, in the picture respecting the "disturbing situation" Riyadh is suffering from as a result of the "enormous volumes of smuggling" of weapons and drugs from Iraqi territory, in addition to Iraqi infiltrators, and the question of cooperation in fighting terrorism.
And he quotes the head of the Gulf Research Center as stressing two points the Saudis are particularly interested in: One is the volume of drug and weapons smuggling from Iraq, and the other is the return to Saudi Arabia of Saudi nationals held in Iraqi prisons, whether these prisons are run by the Iraqis or the Americans. Abdulaziz bin Saqr said it would be in the interests of the Iraqis and the Americans to return these people to the Saudi authorities, because it would help them fight the local terror networks that are involved in Iraq.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Regime change: De-Sadrization won't be good news for the American forces

Mostly overlapping reports in Al-Quds al-Arabi, Azzaman and Al-Hayat indicate the following: (1) Prime Minister Maliki, under pressure from the Americans for some semblance of progress on the "benchmarks", stepped up his verbal attacks on the Sadrist current to an unacceptable level, triggering not only the Sadrist protest demonstrations in Baghdad yesterday, but also statements by Sadrist spokesmen to the effect that this shows Maliki is in the process of being dumped by the Americans. (2) Within the Shiite bloc, there is a restructuring that excludes the Sadrist movement (and the Fadhila, presumably), involving a re-allocation of benefits to the Dawa and Supreme Council (Hakim) parties. Sadrists talk about a Dawa-Supreme Council coordinating committee that is doing this. (3) As for the government coalition as a whole, president Talabani announced an agreement that brings the (Sunni) Iraqi Accord Front ministers back into the government, after a two- or three-week absense that was triggered by the criminal proceedings against one of their leaders.

Al-Quds al-Arabi, in its front-page news item on this, said Sadrist public affairs coordinator Ahmed al-Shibani, responding to accustions by Maliki to the effect the Mahdi Army includes Baathists and Sadamists, and engages in terrorism, said statements like that show Maliki is still trying to convince the occupation forces that he is capable of putting down the Sadrists, but this is too late for him, because the Maliki government "is on the edge of the abyss and will collapse in a few days time".

And a Sadrist spokesman in Najaf, Salah al-Abidi, said what Maliki has done with these statements is to give the green light to the occupation forces to strike the Sadrist current.
Al-Abidi added that these recent statements by Maliki are a link in the chain of continuing attacks on the Sadr current by the occupation forces, and the aim is to show that the government is implicated in the scheme...and to ingratiate [the government] with them via these statements against the [Sadrist] current.
In its lead editorial, Al-Quds al-Arabi agrees that these latest developments mean the Maliki government is headed for collapse. The editorialist writes: "Nuri al-Maliki lost another mainstay supporting for his government, with his fierce attack on the Mahdi Army, accusing it of terror and of including discredited Baathists and Sadamists," noting this is the military arm of the Sadrist party, whose support was decisive in making Maliki the Shiite-bloc candidate for Prime Minister last year. While Maliki-Sadr relations have been deteriorating gradually over the last few months, with the Sadrists withdrawing from Parliament and then its ministers withdrawing from cabinet en masse, these latest verbal attacks, and the Sadrist protest demonstration that followed, have changed this from a quiet and civilized protest, into an open and armed confrontation, the editorialist says. In fact Iraqi army forces have already been involved in fierce fighting with the Mahdi army in a number of locations, most notably Samawa. And the editorialist says, echoing the Sadrist spokesman cited above
There are those who see this verbal attack by Maliki on the Madhi Army, with this degree of clarity, as a green light to go ahead and liquidate this army militarily and end its presence on the ground.
Azzaman adds even more harsh assessments by these and other Sadrist leaders, including the accusation that the Dawa and Supreme Council parties are already dividing up the spoils from the exclusion of the Sadrist party; a statement by Sadrist official Ahmad al-Sharifi to accusing Maliki of having worked hand in glove with the Americans to gradually involve the occupation forces in attacks on the Sadrist current. The Azzaman journalist ties this to the statement reported in the WaPo yesterday citing White House sources as skeptical of progress on the "benchmarks", one of which was elimination of the militias.

Al-Hayat, for its part, contributes details respecting the plans for a restructuring of the overall governing coalition, excluding the Sadrists. Talabani said there was an agreement for the return of the (Sunni Arab) Iraqi Accord Front ministers to the government, following an absence of two or three weeks that had been triggered by disputes over presidency of the Parliament and criminal proceedings against one of the IAF leaders.
A member of parliament with [the Shiite coalition] and leader of the Dawa party, Ali Al-Adeeb said there will be an announcement in a couple of weeks of formation of the new parliamentary coalition, which will try to support the Maliki government, and it will include [presumably in addition to the IAF Sunni Arab parties mentioned above] the Dawa party, led by Maliki, and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council [formerly SCIRI] led by Abdulaziz al-Hakim, along with [the two big Kurdish parties].
The Al-Hayat reporter quotes an IAF spokesman to the effect that the dispute over the post of president of Parliament (the Mashhadani issue) isn't really settled yet, nor has the IAF made a final determination what its position will be on that issue. The spokesman implied that splits inside the IAF could delay resolution of this. And the journalist seems to imply that in turn could delay the "new parliamentary coalition" announcement.

Al-Quds al-Arabi, in the above-mentioned editorial, concedes the return of the IAF ministers to the government could work to extend the life of the Maliki government a little more. However, the editorialist adds: The fact remains the Maliki government is in a state of continuing failure, having been unable to meet any of the targets including Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, disbanding of militias, and so on. Following its earlier loss of support from the Fadhila party, now it is losing the support of the Sadrists too, and will end up being particularly bad news for the American forces.
The inclusion of the Sadrist current among those groups that resist the occupation is going to make the task of the American forces difficult if not impossible. And this is particularly the case if we take into account the fact that the new Bush strategy, with the 30,000 additional troops to secure Baghdad, has had exactly the opposite of the desired effect, with a noticeable increase in American losses, and growth too in the frequency of bomb attacks and anonymous bodies...
Hard to summarize all of this? Not at all! What is happening is either the slow implementation of the Hadley memo recommendation (creation of a new support base for Maliki that would exclude the Sadrists), or else a modification of that to include the actual dumping of Maliki (the "Allawi plan"). On the Shiite split, why not re-read this December 2006 post called "Dollar-diplomacy to split the Shiites: Will it work this time?" And on the relationship of the Shiite-split to the Allawi plan, see this Feb 2007 post called "More on the Allawi plan for a national-security government". Or you could type "Hadley" in the search-box at the top of the page and read the whole history.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Mystery quote

Bet you can't figure out who wrote this:
Basically, an enormous amount of intellectual energy has been expended since 9/11 on the proposition that we can effectively outline policies for coping with problems emerging from the Muslim world without availing ourselves of rigorous empirical knowledge of the countries or people in question.
Translation: We think it doesn't matter that we know squat about the Muslim world.
This makes sense because the broad American elite basically had no knowledge of these issues.
Translation: When the broad American elite doesn't know squat about something, naturally we make policy as if ignorance doesn't matter.
Even worse, the community of regional specialists on the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions tend to hold politically unacceptable opinions about the US-Israel relationship and, indeed, the general thrust of US policy in the area.
Actually some people do know something, but as luck would have it, these same people tend to hold politically unacceptable opinions first about the US-Israel relationship, and also about US policy in the region generally.

So: We (the US) make policy as if facts don't matter. That's because the broad American elite doesn't have any facts and doesn't think that matters. And the people who do actually know something have politically unacceptable opinions. If follows that "better reasoning about values" isn't very useful. It can't bridge the gap between ignorance-based policy on the one side, and the politically-unacceptable expertise on the other.

Who's the author?

His concluding comment includes a hint.
I do think it's important for progressives to develop more effective public articulations of what it is we're trying to say about US foreign policy...
Notice the we.

"Looming Hamas-salafi confrontation": Analysis or a new canard?

Back in May, Mohamed abu Roman wrote in his regular op-ed column in the Jordanian paper Al-Ghad about the announced formation in Iraq of something called "Hamas--Iraq", a resistance group but one that abu Roman said was more in the "pragmatic" tradition of the Muslim Brotherhood (hence borrowing the name of that other MB offshoot, the palestinian Hamas) and thus a challenge to the intransigent "salafi" ideology and strategy of AlQaeda and its affiliates. A couple of Egyptian MB people indignantly denied that the new Iraqi group had anything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, but in any event the group's manifesto did indicate a more pragmatic line, and the implicit idea was: "Gee, maybe this is something the US could negotiate with". From that day to this, I do not recall reading any further reports about this group.

Today abu Roman returns to this theme of "pragmatic versus salafi", in his discussion of the release of Alan Johnston. Abu Roman notes that Hamas leaders dismiss the Islamic Army (Darmoush group) as something that will not be allowed to create further problems, but he says the story goes farther than that, because first of all the Islamic Army has significant AlQaeda-affiliated support (based on jihadi chat-room comments, and on the establishment of a new enterprise that appears to specialize in AQ messages to Palestine). The Islamic Army is merely one manifestation of a growing confrontation between MB-oriented and AQ-oriented Islamic groups. He says the fact there were armed clashes between Hamas and the Islamic Army, with offsetting kidnappings and so on, indicates that the underlying rivalry has "entered a new stage". And he notes that while Zawahiri in his latest pronouncement didn't attack Hamas as a group, he did address its members "who are taking Israeli missles from the front and the knives of Fatah from the rear" and advises them to take note of the fact that "your leaders have compromised sharia and have accepted democracy", in effect appealing to those Hamas members who are prone to disagree with the "pragmatic" strategy. Not exactly a declaration of war, but abu Roman says it is very significant.

Concluding, abu Roman says dealing with Dahlan-Fatah, even in the context of the international blockade, was one thing, but dealing with the jihadi groups of the salafi persuasion like the Islamic Army is going to be a challenge of a different and deeper kind, and one that will require different skills to deal with.

There is something about this "looming inevitable clash" genre that bothers me. Who can forget the dire predictions, at various times and by various parties, of a region-wide clash between Sunnis and Shiites? Of course, in a way it isn't fair to compare what abu Roman says in his sober way about a salafi-pragmatist struggle, with what the salivating neo-cons have had to say from time to time about the Sunnis and the Shiites. Still, in both of these "looming inevitable clash" scenarios, it is fair to say there is a preponderance of picture-painting based on simple two-part classification of the parties, as against a thinness of actual evidence apart from selected intemperate remarks by one side or the other.

To me this all seems tendentious, but to be perfectly frank, what I don't understand is where it is tending. It seems as if the takeaway is supposed to be that "there is still a significant risk of salafi takeover of Gaza". But why would anyone say that in the absence of any real evidence? For what reason?

Friday, July 06, 2007

Why labeling bothers me

Maybe it's just me, but there's something about switching back and forth between Western and Arabic war- and political-reporting that gives me a feeling of nausea, which I will now try and explain.

It starts with the labeling. This group (Ansar al-Sunna, say) is AlQaeda; this group (same one at a different time or in different circumstances) isn't. This man (Harith al-Dhari, say) is a thug; this man (same person, at a different time) is an important leader. The same groups and the same individuals are put through these explanatory hoops as the circumstances and the US government position change. From time to time someone critiques the prevailing nomenclature (for instance, bravo for recognizing that "we are primarily fighting AlQaeda in Iraq" is a misleading and tendentious theme). Label-critique is fine as far as it goes, but where does it get us? Who are we fighting, really? The new line is we are fighting people who get a kick out of fighting each other, and each of these groups has its own label, for purposes of English-language reporting, and no other characteristics. Labeling someone or a group as a way of not seeing that person or group has another name--racism--and I guess that's where the nausea comes in.

That's one source of it. The other is that labeling is a way of more or less deliberately missing what is actually happening, in favor of perpetuating a party line. For instance:

Some groups and individuals, for one reason or another, don't get any tag at all. Take the Islamic Army in Gaza led by Mumtaz Darmoush and his family. A self-styled salafi jihadi group, accused of being more of a hometown organized crime family, western accounts don't really say anything about them. The high-profile release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston was entirely based on pressure-and-negotiations with this group on the part of Hamas, and in spite of the importance of the event as evidence of a degree of stability in Gaza, nothing is said about them. The reason is that this is one of those situations you can't label in quite the same way. All elements of Gaza society recognized the prevailing need, and the prevailing pressure, for unity in the face of collective isolation and collective starvation. What do you call that kind of a situation, out of your thesaurus of labels, O English language reporter? I guess you couldn't start with some concept like "solidarity"?

I think once you see why some groups and events don't fit the labels, you can begin to see what is wrong with the whole labeling approach. It isn't just a matter of calling Hamas terrorist in order to justify trying to annihilate the movement. It's that too, but it is also a matter of labeling everything in sight, in order to avoid coming to grips with the underlying phenomena. Take the assumed distinction between Islamist movements that participate in electoral politics (Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, for instance) and those that reject the idea (AlQaeda and its relatives). The fact is that the pre-eminent salafi Ayman Zawahiri, in his periodic pronouncements, while he still criticizes concessions to Israel, seems to have dropped his earlier very pointed criticism of Hamas being involved in electoral politics at all. Does that mean Zawahiri is becoming less "salafi"? Or would it be better to try and understand what is actually happening. Similarly in Iraq, the current debate about whether it is wise for the US to arm "non-salafi" groups to fight "salafi" groups falls into this category. It risks being an argument primarily about labels. For instance, there is a lot of jihadi chat-room discussion about this issue that might be enlightening, but where have you ever seen an extended summary of such a discussion? Much safer to stick to in-principle discourse about the labels.

In Iraq, the labeling has been easy. Iraqi resistance has a modern history going back at least to the resistance to the British in the 1920s, but that was another generation. Post-2003 Iraqis all to easily fell into the sectarian trap, giving Western commentators plenty of support for their labeling strategies. Western denunciations of Sadr used to echo what the Baathists have had to say about them, and conversely, the erstwhile denunciations of the Baathist resistance echoed what the Shiite government was saying. I use the past tense, because for instance a resistance spokesman by the name of Awni Qalamji, in his regular Al-Quds al-Arabi op-ed, appears to have dropped his earlier very pointed Sadr-criticism and is instead focusing on the resistance as a manifestation not only of Iraqi and Islamic values, but of universal values as well.

Since the US sharpened the focus on Palestine, the situation with respect to labeling has changed much more noticeably. Palestinian resistance is a tradition going back many decades, and you can see that in the difficulty Washington is currently having in driving the wedge between Fatah and Hamas. Fatah people, from the rank-and-file to the leadership, recognize a cheap occupation ploy when they see one. Putting it another way, you can go to many websites and read something about the experiences of Palestinians under the occupation, and under the recent anti-Gaza measures, and you won't find anything like the sectarian or small-group-based hatred and group-labeling that characterized so much of the early post-2003 Iraqi experience.

Interestingly, after Hamas took control of Gaza, there was an effort to revive labeling as a principle of Western reporting. It was widely reported that Egypt was going to be upset about having an "Islamist state" (meaning Hamas) on its eastern border, because of the potential encouragement this might give to its Muslim Brotherhood opposition, and therefore Egypt would cooperate with the US, Israel and others in confronting and eradicating them. It wasn't true. Hamas and the Egyptian authorities seem to enjoy an excellent relationship, and there are reports of coming efforts by Egypt to re-start Hamas-Fatah talks, to avoid just such a confrontation. The confrontational label "Islamist" didn't stick. It didn't stick because there is more to the "Middle East" than "Islamist" and "secular". You could say: There are many ties that bind, and America isn't one of them. And what do you propose to call those ties that bind, O Analyst? What expressions in your native English language do you propose to use for that?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Two days

Three papers highlighted three aspects of the Johnston release: To Al-Hayat the most interesting angle was the fact that the fatwa ordering the release (no doubt really providing face-saving cover for the group doing the releasing) was issued by a cleric who is a member of a strict Salafi group in Gaza. The fatwa was based on the overriding Palestinian national interest. Since salafis are in principle opposed to islamists getting involved in the kind of national electoral-government activities Hamas is involved in, this was an interesting case of a coming-together in spite of ideological differences. To Al-Quds al-Arabi the ins and outs of the armed-group dynamics was the most interesting angle, noting that its sources say the kidnap-group will get to keep its arms. While Hamas has earlier on many occasions accused this group, the so-called Islamic Army, of generating fitna as part of the program of Mohamed Dahlan, now the common position seems to be that the Islamic Army will be using its arms only against the occupation. To Al-Akhbar, the release was part of the battle between Hamas and Fatah for "legitimacy and legality", with the Fatah emergency government trying to use the wage-payment issue (with no money for Hamas loyalists) as a proof of its clout, but with Hamas stealing their thunder with the Johnston release as proof of their ability to govern and maintain order.

The only really forward-looking comment was by Al-Hayat which said: First of all, this paves the way for efforts to release the Israeli soldier Shalit, whose capture has been described as a joint venture with this same Islamic Army group; and if that happens, perhaps the result will be major moves in the direction of lifting the economic blockade.

But that was Wednesday. Yesterday (Thursday) was another day. Emergency "Prime Minister" Fayyad renewed his expressions of determination to end the resistance by taking weapons away from anyone "he describes as 'armed persons'". "The party's over", said Fayyad, taking over an English expression he probably learned from the IMF. But the Al-Akhbar reporter continues:
In spite of what Fayyad said, it appears for Israel the party is still just getting under way. Its incursions yesterday into Al-Maghazi and Al-Barij, two camps in central Gaza Sector, was the best proof of that, where occupation forces devoted themselves to punishing the Palestinians without distinguishing between resistance and civilian, the result being 11 martyred and 20 others wounded.

Media footage showing Al-Aqsa TV cameraman Amad Ghanam being hit by additional Israeli bullets after he had already fallen to the ground after taking the first bullet, was a living witness to the fact that it is Israel that decides when anything starts or "is over" in the Palestinian scene, in spite of the domestic actors amusing themselves with struggles over "legitimacy" and "legality."
So it goes. Palestinians squaring the circle in Gaza bringing together salafists, warlords and politicians in a common project; the Americans' buffoon in the West Bank working his tough financial magic (no money for Hamas-loyalists, an excellent thumbnail summary of the so-called IMF orthodoxy); and finally what the Al-Akhbar reporter thought of as the defining footage of the Israelis trying to finish off the TV cameraman as he was lying on the ground.

More on the intelligence-bonanza

(Thanks to a heads-up from commenter Fatima at palestinianpundit, the Egyptian weekly Al-Osboa fixed the link to the story in its current issue about the role of the Gaza intelligence-bonanza in improving relations between Hamas and Egypt). The first two paragraphs of the story (quoted a couple of posts back), went like this:
Political sources told Al-Osboa that Cairo changed its attitude to the Hamas movement after Hamas provided the Egyptian security apparatus with information showing the involvement of certain leaders in the Palestinian Preventive Security and Fatah in a number of suspicious schemes against Egypt.

The sources said Hamas leaders provided Cairo with conclusive evidence of the involvement of one of these [Fatah] leaders in the transmission to Israel of information concerning Egyptian security and political situations, including [information garnered in the course of] meetings that this official had with a number of [Egyptian] officials in the course of his repeated visits to Cairo.
The continuation is as follows:
And the sources said that the Fatah official, who works in an important security position, was involved in the kidnapping of an Egyptian security official in Gaza a year ago, and was also involved in smuggling counterfeit money and arms in to Egypt.

And the sources said this [Fatah] official and his group undertook to arrange a plan to fire on the Egyptian security delegation, twice, in the Palestinian territories, so that they were able to cause the failure of the Fatah-Hamas talks that Egypt was supervising. And they said there is information repeatedly referring to the involvement of this Fatah official in the arming of some of the terrorists who undertook terror operations in Taha and Sharm el-Sheikh, which resulted in dozens of victims.

And the information is that the Egyptian security apparatus [which received this information from Hamas] turned over this information in its entirety to the [Egyptian] political leadership, and that is what led to the occurrence of the change in the Egyptian attitude to Hamas. [For instance] president Mubarak said at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference that talks are the only way to solve the Fatah-Hamas crisis, and he later told an Israeli newspaper that Hamas is not a threat to Egypt's national security.

The sources said that Egypt will re-start in the coming weeks the role of the Egyptian security delegation in Gaza, and that it might also open a consulate in the Gaza Strip. And the sources said they expect there will be an invitation in the coming days to Khaled Meshaal to visit Cairo for discussions on ways to end the crisis with Fatah.
Several of these points were also referred to in the piece in Al-Masriyoun, including the reference to kidnapping of an Egyptian security official a year ago; spying on Egypt; smuggling counterfeit money into Egypt; and support for terrorist attacks in the Egyptian tourist areas of Sharm el-Sheikh and Taha. The main new point in this Al-Osboa piece is that this intelligence information was turned over in its entirety, by the Egyptian security people to whom Hamas gave it, to the Egyptian political authorities, and this resulted in the dramatic change in the attitude of Egypt with respect to Hamas.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Dayton Plan

Al-Jazeera broadcast a summary of the Hani al-Hassan controversy, reviewing exactly what this venerable Fatah leader said (on Al-Jazeera's program "No boundaries" a few days ago), and exploring why the Abbas faction has deemed it necessary to vilify him.

The introduction went like this:
Moderator: In statements on the program "No boundaries", Hani al-Hassan, a member of the Fatah central committee, accused a faction within the [Fatah] movement of associating itself with the plan laid down by General Keith Dayton, the American security coordinator between Israel and the Palestinians, the gist of which plan was to ignite the fires of internal fighting. But he also said Hamas went [beyond what was necessary] in its reaction to the events in Gaza.

Tape of al-Hassan interview: "What Dayton was trying to accomplish was to find a faction that believes in internal fighting; but what was surprising to us in Fatah was that Hamas went beyond reacting to the Dayton faction, and this was a big surprise, because the actual takeover of power in Gaza did damage to the democratic idea".

Moderator: Hani al-Hassan also stressed that what happened in Gaza was the collapse of the plan of the American general Dayton.

Tape of al-Hassan interview: "What really collapsed was the Dayton Plan, and what collapsed with it was the small group of his collaborators who believed in the American point of view. As for the Fatah movement, the Fatah movement did not collapse in Gaza, because 95% of it has no relationship with that Plan."
What is dramatic about this is the blunt summary of the Dayton Plan: to ignite the fires of intra-Palestinian fighting. It is true that Al-Hassan blames Hamas for not precisely calibrating its reponse to the exact size of the challenge, implying Hamas in Gaza could have defeated the Dayton Plan and still stopped short of a complete takeover, but that is a question of a different order. Whatever the size of the challenge, the nature of it is clearly expressed: The Dayton Plan--the American plan with its local collaborators--was to ignite intra-Palestinian fighting.

Hani al-Hassan, the venerable Fatah figure, didn't find it necessary to argue that that was the nature of America's Plan--rather it is his self-evident starting point. His argument is that while it is true that Hamas was able to defeat that Plan in Gaza, they went a little too far in doing so. But clearly the point is that there was such a Plan, and that a small group in Fatah collaborated with it. The Abbas faction has seen it necessary to vilify Hani al-Hassan because of the clear implication: They themselves are part of the Dayton Plan.

In this way, the Dayton Plan is like the Adhamiya Wall. It sums up in a simple and direct way the nature of the American strategy: division, of the kind that Israel has been promoting among the Palestinians. With respect to Iraq, the Washington groupies are split between those who say violent division is the result of bungled US planning on the one side, and those who say it is the result of pre-existing fault-lines, or some such argument on the other. With respect to Lebanon, the role of the US and its local allies in fomenting divisions is similarly plastered over with coats of verbiage or ignored. But it is the moments of lucidity provided by the Adhamiya Wall and the Dayton Plan that define America in Arabic. The Americans are there to promote fitna.

There are two points here. One is that the clarity this provides with respect to the nature of the American strategy. But the other is the role of Israel, and it is worth noting that this cuts two ways. In the Arab world, a higher profile for Israel means a sharper focus on strategies of brutality and humiliation. But in America, it is possible that the Israeli factor will end up helping promote the neocon idea that all resistance to foreign occupation is terrorism. Here's Matt Yglesias talking about the recent Bush remarks to the effect Israel provides a "good indicator of success that we're looking for in Iraq":
[Mockery of Bush] shouldn't completely obscure the fact that Bush is making a sound analytic point. What he's saying about Iraq is, in essence, what John Kerry was saying about the US when he said he thought we should aim to reduce terrorism to a kind of nuisance.
And here he is misrepresenting Alistair Crooke's condemnation of US policy:
In other words [Matt writes], while Western governments dream up ways to promote moderate alternatives to Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, events on the ground may be trending in the opposite direction.
"Dreaming up ways to promote moderate alternatives to Hamas..." He is talking about the Dayton Plan.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Another reference to how the intelligence-bonanza is helping Hamas

All-seeing commenter Fatima at palestinianpundit calls attention to an article in the current issue of the Egyptian weekly paper AlOsboa, whose first two paragraphs go like this:
Political sources told Al-Osboa that Cairo changed its attitude to the Hamas movement after Hamas provided the Egyptian security apparatus with information showing the involvement of certain leaders in the Palestinian Preventive Security and Fatah in a number of suspicious schemes against Egypt.

The sources said Hamas leaders provided Cairo with conclusive evidence of the involvement of one of these [Fatah] leaders in the transmission to Israel of information concerning Egyptian security and political situations, including [information garnered in the course of] meetings that this official had with a number of [Egyptian] officials in the course of his repeated visits to Cairo.

This supports what has been reported earlier about the importance of the Gaza intelligence bonanza to Hamas-Egypt relations.

Unfortunately, as the aforementioned Fatima noted, the link to the full article isn't working, so I suggest checking back there from time to time. And while you're there I recommend reading carefully the main post and in particular the linked 1982 Israeli position paper on Mideast strategy with its contemporary-sounding references to a tripartite splitup of Iraq, giving the West Bank Palestinians to Jordan, and all the rest of it.

Next up: Plan for a NATO force to take over where Dahlan failed

The proposal for deployment of an international force in the Gaza Strip, mentioned by Abbas in talks with Sarkozy on Friday, reflects an attempt by the American administration to revive a plan that was first proposed during the Arafat captivity in 2001, for an international "peacekeeping" force to put down the Palestinian resistance. Al-Akhbar reports: "The proposal by Abbas for deployment of an international force in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is a revival of an American plan for a 'mandate'", spelled out in a 68-page report by the Army School for Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) in the year 2001, whose implementation is said to have been blocked for various reasons in earlier years, but which is now again a topic of American interest.
Sources said Condoleeza Rice encouraged Abbas to continue promoting the plan for deployment of international forces to permit control of the situation in the Gaza Strip, following [the Hamas takeover]... In fact, at a time when the plan doesn't enjoy Palestinian acceptance, even from the so-called Group of 15 that advise Abbas, the American administration is insisting that this plan doesn't imply the beginning of direct deployment of American troops, but rather the deployment in an international force which NATO would help form. [The Americans also say] this will be one of the tasks that the new Quartet representative Tony Blair will be focusing on, and [that American General Keith Dayton] is undertaking to add details to the plan.
The Al-Akhbar reporter outlines the main points of the original SAMS report (20,000 troops, well-armed with weapons and with the argle-bargle of protecting Israeli national security and Palestinian national development and so on), summarizing as follows:
The sources said the American concept for deployment of an international force in Gaza and the West Bank was set down in its basic form earlier as a peace-keeping force with a security mission of ending the armed resistance against Israel. The Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip led to suspension of the idea, but it is now being looked at again following the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the sudden collapse of the PA security apparatus there.
(The Jordanian newspaper AlDustour has a very similar report, according to a Palestinian news agency, but I haven't seen it. Needless to say the bloggers and others with Washington connections are maintaining strategic silence, as they have done with the Al-Majd "Action Plan", the Dahlan-intelligence story, and so much else).